A Colossal Wreck: Dissertations, Theory, and Failure

Submitted by Christopher R. Moore on Fri, 02/18/2022 - 15:55

My first dissertation was bad. I vividly remember the very-hot-then-very-cold wash of shame that crept down my neck when I opened the email containing the breakdown of my undergraduate results. I blinked twice, then blinked again, but the unfamiliar and unwelcome number next to ‘Final Project (60 Credits)’ refused to change. Compared to the other essays, it represented a spectacular blot on my record. The fact that it didn’t significantly affect my overall degree grade was irrelevant – I felt like a failure, and when my parents and sister took me out for a celebratory dinner that evening, I duly ruined it for everyone by being sad and grouchy.*


I’d always thought of the dissertation as the centrepiece of my studies, and it’s easy to see why. The dissertation is the final module to most undergraduate programmes, and it is therefore tempting to invest it with a greater degree of importance than anything that came before it. At worst, it can assume an almost mythic status. I thought of the dissertation as the Final Boss of my degree. I also thought of it as my victory lap, or as a big loopy signature at the end of a very long document. Flunking the dissertation felt like turning up drunk to my own birthday party with my shirt on inside-out – a bold statement, to be sure, but rather an embarrassing one.


Part of this can be blamed on the ludicrous nature of my dissertation subject. My BA was in Comparative Literature, and I had initially wanted to compare the work of Jorge Luis Borges with that of a little-known American poet whom it would be unfair to mention by name in this essay. At the time, this poet meant everything to me. Even now, I can still recite one of his poems from memory, though not without an awful catch in my throat. My dissertation tutor – a world authority on Spanish-language Magic Realism – sat me down and very gently told me that this American poet didn’t exactly produce the kind of work that warranted academic study. Essentially, I was told to not waste my time with him. I was crushed, but took her advice and somewhat grudgingly changed course. I can still remember the title I eventually landed on – The Search for God in Dante, T.S. Eliot, and Borges.


Perhaps you have started to see the problem here. My dissertation was supposed to be around 10’000 words, and I had come up with a title that was way too vague to possibly fit into such a constricted wordcount. Looking back on it, it would be lucky to fit into a reasonably-sized book. Which God exactly did I have in mind? Did I plan to focus on the tortured anxiety of Eliot’s early work, or the grim-dull crypto-fascistic wheezing of his later poems? Dante’s The Divine Comedy runs to almost 1500 pages of very close-set type and sprawls over three volumes. Had I even the slightest idea what corner of this I wanted to focus on?


It would have been one thing if I had answers to any of these questions, but the unfortunate fact was that I did not. My finished dissertation schlepped between bits and pieces of The Aleph, The Waste Land, and Paradiso, without ever staying in one spot long enough to say anything remotely interesting. Last year I dug it out of a folder and re-read it for the first time in almost ten years. I realise now that I was lucky even to scrape a 2:1.


Why am I telling you this? Well, partly because it’s always fun to turn #cringe into #content**, but also to impress upon you the importance of being specific when approaching your dissertation. It’s easy to get seduced and/or spooked by the wordcount, but 10’000 words is really only the equivalent of about 3 undergraduate essays. For this reason, you should bring to your dissertation the same level of focus that you would to any other essay. 10’000 words is a lot, but it still isn’t enough to write about everything.


That said, you should use your dissertation to take risks and to express yourself. The dissertation is your opportunity to write about what matters to you, it’s your chance to show off your learning and to explore your passions. But it is a project that requires discipline and shaping and pruning. Your dissertation supervisor can be invaluable to you in this process. The relationship between supervisor and student is roughly analogous to that of a film’s producer and its director. The producer is the one who keeps tabs on the director’s vision and makes sure that their grand ideas are actually workable within the budget. In academia, your supervisor can perform much the same role, except rather than sweating over a budget sheet, they can help you get the most out of the limited words available to you. The work will – of course – be yours and yours alone, but your supervisor can steer you through the tricky parts and guide you back to safety when you start to wander off topic.


My second dissertation was also bad. As I approached the final module of my master’s degree, I at least felt that I’d learned my lesson and had carefully whittled down my question to one area of focus, one theoretical model, and two specific texts. Both Sides Now, ran my title page, Androgyny and its Discontents in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. So far so good – I had a clear idea in mind, two fascinating and tragic characters to explore (Maggie Tulliver and George DuRoy, respectively), and an expanded wordcount. I even had detailed plans for each of the chapters – something conspicuously lacking in my first dissertation.


The problems only began when I tried to lay out the theoretical underpinnings of my approach. In academia, theory is everything – it is not just the way in which we made sense of our findings, it materially changes how we look at data. A Marxist and a Conservative, for example, can look at the same city skyline and see two completely different things. I often tell my students that facts are fundamentally useless without a good theoretical model with which to make sense of them, and unfortunately I built my second dissertation on very rickety theoretical foundations.


I spent a very happy 15’000 words exploring the nuances of Maggie and George’s characters, and the ways in which their androgynous natures disrupt and unsettle the rigid binaries that surround them. I even managed to argue that their androgyny pushes back against the very language used to bring them to life (this is the kind of thing that Literature Postgrads live for). But at the bottom of it all was a theoretical model of androgyny that was thin and sketchy and extremely dated. In other words, the theory upon which I had based my entire dissertation was hopelessly unequal to the task I needed it to perform. It was like trying to download Netflix onto an Atari 2600.


I hope this makes the point clear that your dissertation needs a solid theoretical grounding. Deciding on your theoretical approach should be the first big decision you make when piecing together ideas for your final project. Will you interpret your data through a Behaviouralist lens? Maybe you’ll apply the principles of Constructivism to your area of interest. Perhaps you’ll take a big swing at a Marxist interpretation of your subject. These are heavy decisions, but you do not have to carry them alone. Again, your supervisor can be your best friend in this process, sharpening your ideas and suggesting theoretical approaches that will enhance your findings. Listen to them. Read the books they recommend.


Both my dissertations now sit in plastic wallets at the back of my wardrobe, only becoming more dated and less interesting by the day. I still have not read all of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but I do still think that Maggie Tulliver is the greatest heroine of 19th Century Realist writing. It’s strange to think of how much effort I put into these slim documents, and of how much time I spent pushing and pulling in all the wrong directions. The dissertation is important, but it is not your degree. Your final grade will reflect all the work you have put into your studies, spread across a great many modules and at least three years. The dissertation may be biggest piece of writing you ever complete, but it is important to keep it in perspective. And when your family invites you out to dinner to celebrate your achievements, smile and accept their praise. However you feel about those final 10’000 words, you will have earned that celebration.



*For which, believe me, I am very sorry


** This is a very #VulnerableMoment for me

Academic Writing